Vintage Cable Box: The Ratings Game

“In trucking, I only had to deal with thugs, hit-men and goons. But these network guys are scary.”

The Ratings Game, 1984 (Danny DeVito), Viacom Productions

There was an episode of Family Guy a couple of years back where Peter Griffin gets it into his head to steal all the Nielsen ratings boxes from a van. A few hours later, he has rigged the boxes to collect information from his viewing preferences. Peter then realizes he has a kind of power to manipulate the television broadcasting system to his peculiar standards. As a result, all kinds of ridiculous programming is produced. Tired of having his ideas rejected by the Hollywood elite, Danny DeVito’s Vic De Salvo devises a scheme to garner high ratings for his unsold pilot, Sittin’ Pretty (a kind of Three’s Company knock-off starring himself) by sending Nielsen families off on a cruise while he has friends break into their homes and watch his pilot, thus inflating the numbers.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with creative labyrinthian hurdles, heirarchies, and systems of exclusion will understand DeVito’s problem.  He’s an outsider who has gotten fed-up with playing by the rules, so he takes matters into his own hands.  In a way, he reminds me of madman moviemaker Tommy Wiseau and his truly appalling The Room, even to the point where Vic is deluded as to his own talent.  Sittin’ Pretty, while a terrible example of a television pilot, is in keeping with most television series produced at that time (and many these days) so it’s resulting success (or failure) is inexplicable.  Rhea Perlman is a low-level statistician at the ratings company.  While courting her, she gives him the idea to hijack the families.  Either, he was unaware of the need for high ratings, or the (admittedly clever) teleplay is required to educate the audience, or both.  A particularly funny scene aboard the cruise has these bored Nielsen families (no television is permitted on the cruise) engaging in lively discussion about a recent Dynasty episode.

The Ratings Game works brilliantly as a satire of not only the culture television shows stimulate, but in turn the entertainment our culture inspires.  If you believe that television is a pop culture wasteland (excluding the McLuhan argument that television is merely a catalyst for that wasteland – an argument I agree with), the movie will, at least, provide a foundation for that belief.  The Nielsen ratings exists as a kind of sample pool of viewing habits.  The percentages of viewership are based on a small sampling of “Nielsen families”.  For example, if ten people watch your television, Nielsen will estimate a thousand people (who do not have the ratings boxes in their homes) watched your television show.  It’s not an exact science and has caused consternation through the years as people have seen their favorite shows cancelled due to weak or low ratings.  Networks and syndicators take those figures and charges advertisers varying rates for commercials that will air during those shows.

First-time director Danny DeVito, working with a WGA award-winning script by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, and perhaps drawing on his own experience in television, crafts a deliberate, mocking parody foreshadowing his later work.  The cast is made up of a wonderful mix of television and character actors: Gerrit Graham, Kevin McCarthy, George Wendt, Allyce Beasley, and in early roles, Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards.  DeVito would go to direct (mostly) unusually dark comedies like Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses (a personal favorite), and Death to Smoochy.  The Ratings Game was produced for the Showtime cable television networks and aired on The Movie Channel.  HBO (Home Box Office) started producing original films a year earlier with The Terry Fox Story.  Made-for-cable films would become an industry unto itself after these first few experiments.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Terms of Endearment, 1983

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“I don’t know what it is about you, but … you do bring out the devil in me.”

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Terms of Endearment, 1983 (Shirley MacLaine), Paramount Pictures

Aurora is constantly worried about her baby, Emma. When Emma doesn’t cry (in the pre-credit sequence), Aurora charges in and starts shaking her. Emma starts crying. Relieved, Aurora mutters, “that’s better” and then leaves the room. As long as Emma is crying, Aurora will know she is okay. Years after my daughter was born, I would go in and check on her. Okay, so I still do it. I just like to know that she’s breathing. That’s what parents do. We worry constantly, and if there’s only one element of Terms of Endearment that remains beautifully true, it is Shirley MacLaine’s awe-inspiring performance as Aurora Greenway. MacLaine is truly a mother in this movie. She is a mother in real life. In fact, it was her relationship with her own daughter that inspired friend William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist.

The movie starts with the death of Aurora’s husband and her newfound single status, raising Emma to young adulthood.  Emma grows up to inhabit her mother’s values even if she has less-than-stunning taste in men.  She marries ne’er–do–well teacher Flap Horton (an infuriating Jeff Daniels), who knocks her up with three kids (while her best friend lives a happy and fulfilling life in the big city), keeping her trapped in a marriage she realizes is running on fumes at this point.  They have no money, and Aurora has to loan them money to survive, even though he has a full professor’s position at an Iowa college.  Aurora’s dislike for Flap extends to her not even attending Emma’s wedding, and then she completely flips out at the dinner table when Emma tells her she’s pregnant.  She protests that she’s not ready to be a grandmother, and to prove it, she courts next-door neighbor, astronaut and womanizer Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).

While Aurora is trying to enjoy her life, she suffers in silence at her presumed betrayal of her husband, and Garrett bristles at the emotional responsibility of maintaining a monogamous relationship.  Emma conducts her own affair with a timid banker (John Lithgow) when she discovers Flap has been letting it flap around a little too much.  It seems he really enjoys his students, and not in that good, educational, inspiring way.  Asshole!  Eveything Emma has done for him!  Every compromise!  Every child!  This is what she gets?  On top of this, she gets fucking cancer!  I know, right?  This is fucked up!  What was supposed to be a routine flu shot turns into fucking cancer because the doctor notices some suspicious lumps.  He orders a biopsy, and that’s it – she’s got fucking cancer.  I remember this whole bit making me incredibly angry and sad watching it for the first time on cable television.  I knew I was in for an emotional rollercoaster ride, but I didn’t know we would jump the tracks and wind up in a ditch.

Emma puts all her ducks in a row.  She travels to New York City with her best friend, Patti, lives it up, meets new people.  She tries to bond with her children, sweet Teddy and incorrigible bastard Tommy.  She tries to make peace with Flap, but I think (in Emma’s defense) she always knew that Flap was a hopeless idiot.  A devoted (if not faithful) husband and father he may be, Aurora correctly sums him up as being careless and inconsiderate.  He agrees with her assessment, but he also holds her to task for never welcoming him into the family.  Emma returns home to die.  She spends her last days in the hospital.  One particular scene that always causes me to lose it is Aurora pleading, begging, and ultimately shouting at a nurse to give her daughter a shot for her pain (which she almost seems to preternaturally feel).  It is chilling and heartbreaking.  When Emma finally dies, Aurora is devastated and she clutches at Flap, almost unable to surrender to an embrace with a man she detests, but she has no choice now, as Flap is and always will be family.  That’s what we learn from Terms of Endearment.  We may hate them, and they may irritate the Hell out of us, but they are family.

This is such a damned good piece of filmmaking; pandering and manipulative, but also hysterically funny, with performances so good I almost forget the actors and actresses involved.  While I have stated this is MacLaine’s absolute showcase (for which she won a well-deserved Academy Award), ancillary performances from Debra Winger (as Emma), Daniels, Nicholson, Lithgow, and Danny DeVito (as one of Aurora’s early prospective suitors) are top-notch.  Nicholson is interesting to watch in this film.  As part of The Movie Channel’s premiere of this movie in 1984, there was also a Jack Nicholson retrospective which included Easy Rider, Carnal Knowledge, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Chinatown.  Terms of Endearment is the odd-movie-out for him; a sentimental, sometimes cloying family melodrama with colorful bursts of humor, Nicholson seems out of place.  Emma’s funeral scene at the end perfectly illustrates this point as he hangs back while the immediate family mourns, uncomfortably rocking back and forth with his hands in his pockets.

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James L. Brooks directs the movie with an incredibly sure hand, a love for offbeat humor and romance, but with such sophistication, it’s easy to forget he got his start in 60s and 70s sitcoms, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, and Room 222.  He would follow up Terms of Endearment with Broadcast News, and Nicholson’s own showcase, As Good As It Gets.  Terms of Endearment would inadvertently kick-start a subgenre of movies in ’80s and ’90s known as the “chick-flick”.  Movies such as Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, and Fried Green Tomatoes were directly influenced by this movie.  Usually the formula goes that you have a clutch of female friends, who like to dance and share secrets about love and romance, and then one of them dies of fucking cancer.  Terms of Endearment is a movie like The Big Chill, wherein I have a difficult time understanding the character’s motivation primarily because of a perceived age or generation gap, but Terms of Endearment is still a stunning example of modern melodrama.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.